Low power homebrew NAS and ftp server
September 10, 2007 7:59 AM   Subscribe

How do I build a super low powered PC, and just how low can I go without costing a fortune?

I've got lots of experience building PCs, but it's always been using the highest spec parts we can afford. Now I have a new challenge...

I want to build a machine that can stay on 24/7 without using huge amounts power. Ideally, I'd love this to average less than 60W, but I know that may be asking a lot.

This is what I'd like it to be able to do...
* work as a backup machine running 1 or more hard drives, and pulling files across from our other machines when they are awake (suggestions for software to do this would be cool too).
* run as an ftp server.

It would also be cool if it could double as a dvd player for our new home gym area, so I can add an old lcd monitor to make an entertainment centre. For this I'm just talking about a basic dvd playback with 2 or 2.1 sound. Nothing exciting.

What sorts of routes should I go down...?
posted by twine42 to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmmmm interesting question.
First of all I think you will do much betrer with a laptop than you could with a PC, since laptop's are specifically engineering to be low-powered. Alternatively, you might be able to find 'mobile' versions of whatever processor you're planning on using.

Second, displays are one of the bigger draws. Newer displays will probably be more efficient. Smaller displays will draw less power. LCDs are better than CRTs.

Other than that - I'd need to start looking at datasheets :). Looking forward to other answers.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:13 AM on September 10, 2007

I don't think you need a PC, I think you need a NAS.
posted by Leon at 8:14 AM on September 10, 2007

Response by poster: Leon - I'm tempted by standard NAS, but I've always been put off them.

The idea of something that can NAS and also do some external ftp, maybe interact with a webcam and possibly so some other stuff as well makes me wonder about other routes.

The one that originally got be on this route (and which I missed off the list) is that I got sick of leaving my 500W pc running over night to download a few torrents... Something that could sit there quietly pulling torrents down is very attractive.
posted by twine42 at 8:24 AM on September 10, 2007

It's easy to find decent (sub-$600 used) laptops that never reach 60W, will play DVDs, and do all the rest that you want. The only catch - you'd probably have to have to connect the extra drives as usb drives, because the motherboard probably won't have extra IDE connectors.

Also, a laptop comes with built-in battery backup - so it can stay up 24/7 even if the mains power falters.

Fold the screen down (switching it off) and for a say, 1.8Ghz centrino system, you could be looking at an average closer to 25W.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:30 AM on September 10, 2007

Pentium M systems are seriously underrated, providing Pentium 4 speed with much less heat and power usage, at a lower given clock rate. If you're planning to stream or play any HD content with your system in the future, you'll probably want a laptop with a 1.8-2Ghz Pentium M. (It's about equivalent in speed to a 2.8ghz P4) It can also dynamically scale down its speed (and equivalently, power usage) when idle.

If you have to go with a desktop, I remember reading about how low-noise and low-power enthusiasts figured a way to put a Pentium M in a desktop, but I don't remember.
posted by nervestaple at 8:41 AM on September 10, 2007

I realize this may sound like sacrilege to a home-builder, but a $400ish Mac Mini uses very low-power ("laptop style") parts, runs completely silently, has built-in slick slot-loading DVD, is TINY, and has both USB2 and FireWire ports for all sorts of speedy external drives and cameras.

You can install MacOS, Windows XP, or any number of Unixes and Linuxes. I'm sure someone has Vista by now.

The only drawback I see is the single internal HD, but a nice multi-bay external tower would work well beside it.
posted by rokusan at 8:56 AM on September 10, 2007

Response by poster: nervestaple - form factors and positions aren't a problem since I'm half considering either semi boxing the unit into some furniture or getting rid of the case completely and fitting the components into a drawer/tray in a table or book case. I'll take a look at M systems.

harlequin - I don't know why, but it never occurred to me that laptops had such low power needs. Looks like damaged screen laptops on ebay could be an idea...
posted by twine42 at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2007

Given your constraints, I'd recommend checking out the NLSU2 appliance. It's a wee little computer that you can hook USB hard drives up to that runs Linux. Even better, you can "unsling" it, and end up with a very low power (draws < 3A), fully-featured linux box. I've got mine serving files via SMB and DAAP - it's the bee's knees, utterly silent and uses a truly negligable amount of power.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:15 AM on September 10, 2007

I have to second rokusan's post. I will preface it by saying that I am not an Apple fan boy. I own one Ipod and that is it. I have been looking to create a NAS/Media storage and player for quite some time now. It looks like my best option is a mac mini.

It may work for you as well. Especially for the the DVD playing part because the mini has a DVI output which you could connect directly to a HDMI input on a nice LCD TV. You can attach external hard drives to store files you get from Bit torrent as well as running your torrent software directly from the mini.

Having never owned a mac before I can not say this for sure but I am fairly certain that you would be able to remotely log into the mini from anywhere on your network (or outside for that matter but that is a different post) to check out the status of things.

Good luck and please post here when you find a solution that works for you. I will be watching this thread to see what you decide on.
posted by remthewanderer at 9:16 AM on September 10, 2007

Oops, I didn't finish - I also use my slug to serve ripped DVDs to my modded Xbox. No physical media to muck with, and the Xbox is good for playing games, too - total cost for the entire system: $150.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:16 AM on September 10, 2007

Looks like damaged screen laptops on ebay could be an idea...

You can also just buy just the motherboards+case, after all the more saleable parts have been stripped out. About a year ago I got a 1.5Ghz centrino, motherboard, and case, for about $80, and a 1.8Ghz for $150. (Centrinos are a Pentium M plus some other stuff) That then needs ram, HDD, CD burner ($60), wireless ($15), keyboard ($20), power supply ($40), battery (optional, but $70) etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:37 AM on September 10, 2007

Here's a barebones Pentium M desktop kit i found with a quick Newegg search.

"Nearly silent w/ aftermarket fan • Windows or Linux (Ubuntu) - friendly to both • Holds 3 drives • Bundled sound card quite decent • Temps on board/processor always <50c! • Draws <40watts TOTAL. Where I live, this saves me ~ two c notes annually"
posted by nervestaple at 9:43 AM on September 10, 2007

Nth the laptop recommendation. If you examine laptop power supplies, they are often rated at 60W. That means the laptop NEVER draws more than 60W, and probably draws around 20 - 30 at idle.

As an aside, it is highly unlikely that your desktop consumes 500W of power, ever. Most desktop PCs use about 150W idling, some high-power gaming machines perhaps use 400W under full load.
posted by lohmannn at 9:45 AM on September 10, 2007

Via's C7 is very low powered and can be gotten in small itx form factors. Supposedly there are bigger power savings with the C7 than the penium or celeron M, but you might want to research that further.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:03 AM on September 10, 2007

See here for some very low power options (of course, very low power consumption does correlate with less than the highest computation power -- the good news is that modern machines are overpowered for most tasks.)

I've been happy with my DNS-323. Holds two drives; according to this, pulls only 8W when idle, 31-39W during use. I'm not thrilled with its noise, but not appalled, either.

For computer-noise issues, I always refer people to Silent PC Review. Start with their reference/recommended section.

For a cheap case that's a good basis for a quiet system, check out Antec's B-Stock. I've got a very quiet system built with an NSK-3300. (The case isn't a silver bullet, of course, and check SPCR for which cases are best.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:19 AM on September 10, 2007

twine42 writes "getting rid of the case completely and fitting the components into a drawer/tray in a table or book case"

Make sure you deal with the EMI if you strip the metal case.
posted by Mitheral at 12:00 PM on September 10, 2007

I'm using an older G4 Mac Mini as a file server and print server. If I remember correctly, it uses a 65W power brick, so it's definatly low power. I have a Seagate 400GB hard drive attached to it for my iTunes library (accessed with my MacBook via AFP). I used SharePoints to enable an additional file share so my Windows machine can see that hard drive as well. I have SSH enabled, along with Vine Server VNC for gui management. I rarely use Bittorent, but can run it when needed (Transmission). I also have my laser and bubblejet printers attached to it and use OS X's built-in printer sharing (see Bonjour for Windows). I'm in the process of setting up a local Apache web server for other projects.
posted by phrayzee at 12:04 PM on September 10, 2007

I've been participating in the beta program for Windows Home Server (WHS, which incidentally, sounds like it might be a good match for your requirements) since March, and have been using an old desktop as the server. With the imminent release just around the corner, I've been looking at low powered hardware that can be shoved into the back of a closet that will just run.

I've had my eye on this little baby for a while now, and I think that it could work for you:


It's using the Via C3 (Samuel 2 core) low power CPU and integrated graphics. 2 SATA, 1 IDE, and integraded 100mb network adapter. All you need is RAM and a hard drive, and you're in business. Sub 45 watt at idle sounds pretty nice.

It will certainly run XP or one of the Server OS platforms from Microsoft, or you could go the Linux route with a solid distribution. The NewEgg reviews are mostly positive, with the primary complaints around the single PCI slot.

Prior to WHS, I was using Freenas (http://www.freenas.org). That could also be a good 'software' solution to match your low powered hardware requirements.
posted by Jim T at 2:02 PM on September 10, 2007

Seconding an NSLU2, here. They're small, silent, low-power, and you can run debian on them. The debian community around the device is really friendly and helpful, too.
posted by dkg at 2:04 PM on September 10, 2007

Seconding an NSLU2, here. They're small, silent, low-power, and you can run debian on them. The debian community around the device is really friendly and helpful, too.

Thirding. This will do exactly what you want and much more with the uNSLUng firmware update. A list of the types of packages it can run can be found here.
posted by qwip at 3:34 PM on September 10, 2007

Forthing the NSLU2.
posted by dws at 4:24 PM on September 10, 2007

The SMC WAPS-G just got real cheap at buy.com, with free shipping, too.

It's an embedded system-on-a-chip with a 486 instruction set. It runs linux and offers Samba and FTP services. It sports an internal 2.5" drive bay, plus USB ports for external disks and printers.

It doesn't have quite the third-party firmware following that the NSLU2 does, but there's a forum and wiki for it, if you're into the linux hacking.

For $35, I snagged one just to play with. Thought I'd mention it here.
posted by Myself at 10:40 PM on September 16, 2007


I am not seeing the SMC WAPS-G for $35 on buy.com. I am seeing a price of ~$110
posted by remthewanderer at 7:33 AM on September 17, 2007

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